During the first televised World Series game in 1947, almost four million people watched the New York Yankees beat the Brooklyn Dodgers 5 to 3 on NBC. The sponsors of the telecast, Ford Motor Company and Gillette Safety Razor Company, used the opportunity to introduce their products to an unprecedented number of people. With only three networks—CBS, NBC and ABC— the goal of advertisers was to reach as many people at once as possible.
That strategy has evolved, according to advertising and sports executives who participated in an Oct. 7 panel, “The Business of Sports Television,” in McMahon Hall on the Lincoln Center campus.
No longer is advertising only about the total number of viewers, it is about the age, gender, race, even political profile of the viewers tuned into a particular program. The ability of special-interest sports channels to deliver a young, male audience has given rise to powerful sports networks—namely ESPN—that will likely continue to attract a large share of advertising dollars.
Consider Monday Night Football on ABC, said panelist Keith Ritter, president of NHL ICE and senior vice president of new business development for the NHL. The Monday night NFL game might outperform Sunday Night Football on ESPN in total number of viewers, but ESPN can still compete head-to-head with ABC for advertisers.
“It’s the exact same product,” said Ritter, “but ESPN offers a more narrowly defined demographic for advertisers to introduce their product to.”
ESPN has another advantage, according to Steven Justman, vice president of global media and NBA Television, because people no longer distinguish between broadcast and cable television. “ESPN has such a stranglehold on its demographic that it has no problem putting games on cable television,” said Justman. “ESPN is the most profitable channel in the sports industry because it has both advertising and subscription revenue.”
The rise of special-interest channels, known as “demassification,” has not only created advertising revenue for the parent companies of sports networks, but global marketing opportunities as well. The major benefit of the NBA Television network, according to Justman, is “global recognition.” The NBA network does not broadcast a single live National Basketball League game; instead, the network is used to create brand awareness for the NBA overseas, as it is available in more than 80 countries.
The future for sports programming might be even more promising for networks, advertisers and fans as new technologies enter the marketplace, according to panelist, Italo Zanzi, vice president of international broadcast sales and Latin American/U.S. Hispanic marketing for Major League Baseball.
“In the not-too-distant future, when TIVO is an industry norm, people at home will be more apt to watch a football game live and record Friends to watch later, for obvious reasons.”
If that turns out to be the case, sports programming will control an even greater share of the advertising dollars.